National Security Action: “America First” Rings Hollow

WASHINGTON, D.C. Jan. 2, 2020  President Trump starts the new year facing twin foreign policy crises largely of his own making. The nature of the challenges in the Middle East and with North Korea are distinct, but these crises stem from a single root cause: Trump’s consistent actions to place his own domestic political interests ahead of the national interest. 

When it comes to the Middle East, Trump and his defenders have strangely crowed about the “successful” handling of the Green Zone protests, making false and brazenly political comparisons to Benghazi in an effort to score cheap points. But no amount of false equivalence can obscure that Trump’s failed approach to the region — which traded a deal that permanently and verifiably prevented Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon for a failed policy of “maximum pressure” devoid of diplomatic heft — created the tinderbox of conditions behind this week’s attack on our embassy in Baghdad. 

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  • At the start of the Trump administration, the United States had a nuclear deal that — even by the Trump administration’s admission and according to the analysis of our Intelligence Community — was working. The administration abandoned it not for the sake of our security but to fulfill a craven and purely political pledge to his base to demolish “Obama’s deal.” The results have been wholly predictable — and predicted. 
  • Far from cowing Iran into submission, Trump’s approach has freed Iran from its nuclear shackles (allowing it to introduce more sophisticated centrifuges and enrich at a higher level), repeatedly brought us to the brink of military conflict, and emboldened Iran’s proxies — including the faction behind the violence in Iraq in recent days — to take aim more squarely at the United States and our partners.  
  • Just as the administration needlessly antagonized Iran, it ignored Iraq, treating the country as nothing more than a pawn in the broader effort aimed at Iran. The fact that Iraqi authorities allowed the Iranian-backed agitators to march into the heavily fortified diplomatic zone and failed to intervene as they overran the embassy perimeter speaks to the lack of partnership and trust between Baghdad and the Trump administration at a time when cooperation is necessary to protect diplomats as well as to counter ISIS.  

In North Korea, meanwhile, Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s threat to unveil a new “strategic weapon” underscores that Trump has managed to do what his predecessors had not: place the North Korean dictator in the diplomatic driver’s seat. From the earliest days of his hollow engagement with Pyongyang, Trump sent an unmistakable signal that he wanted — and needed for his own political ends — a deal more than the North Koreans, engaging in splashy but empty summits that prioritized photo opportunities over a substantive breakthrough. 
 

  • The North Koreans have capitalized on Trump’s approach, dictating the terms of a process that in no way resembles the “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” touted after the first summit. Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs are more developed and advanced than ever, North Korea has more nuclear warheads than ever, and Kim Jong Un has begun to reverse course on the flimsy concessions he initially made. 
  • Trump, meanwhile, has looked the other way in the face of missile tests and other provocations, many of which violate UN Security Council resolutions. What’s more, the administration has managed to undermine our regional alliances and erode the coordinated approach to North Korea, antagonizing South Korea, ignoring short-range missile tests that keep Seoul and Tokyo on edge, and silencing UN criticism of North Korea’s human rights violations.
  • Trump has done all of this in an effort to secure a foreign policy “win” amidst an otherwise failed international agenda. That’s why, despite the lack of progress, he consistently raises North Korea at his campaign rallies and even encourages his rally-goers’ chants of “Nobel.”


Trump’s prioritization of his domestic political interests over the national interest extends well beyond these two arenas, however. It’s the same inclination that induced Trump to betray America’s national security in his dealings with Ukraine, soliciting a political “favor” for his 2020 campaign. It’s also behind Trump’s approach to the trade war with China, the combativeness with Cuba, the imposition of a Muslim ban, and the emphasis on a border wall over practical and effective measures, to name just a few.
 
Time and again, Trump has made painfully clear that “America First” is nothing more than an empty slogan, and that his political and personal interests always come before those of our nation. 

National Security Action: We are Americans – former senior officials and policy experts, acedemics and civil society leaders – who have see first-hand how the United States is stronger, safer and more respected in the world when we stand strong with our allies, pursue principled diplomacy, and stay true to the values that have long defined American at home and abroad.  www.nationalsecurityaction.org